We all know it: When you’re going back to your hometown, you’d better do it right, yes? Karl Lagerfeld was born in the northern German city of Hamburg, a major European shipping port. Tonight its most lauded, world-famous son returned with a slam-dunk of a Chanel Métiers d’Art show – a collection anchored in the seafaring character of the town on the River Elbe. He’s been away for a very long time, Karl, but psycho-geographies have a way of echoing for a lifetime.
“I’ve never left; this is part of me. I like Hamburg as an idea; something in the back of my mind.” – Karl Lagerfeld
You saw what that was, the essence of his inspiration, in a flash: Sailors in peaked caps on leave, girls in thigh-high boots and leather, the people who mill around docks and nightclubs. The clothes evoked ’60s beatniks, countercultural girls in sweaterdresses, smartly dressed officers in uniform, and naval ratings in sailor pants – looks that ran up and down the register of the cool, the hip, and the immaculately classic. It was an obvious, simple idea, really, but one marinated in a mind that has the sophistication to align the results with Coco Chanel’s heritage, and with what any girl would absolutely kill to wear right now.
The point of difference between this collection and other brands’ preseason shows is that it’s intended to display the work produced by the Chanel-owned luxury artisan-specialist companies: Maison Michel (millinery), Barrie (Scottish cashmere), Goossens (jewelry), and Lesage (embroidery). The sailing concept couldn’t have been a better showcase for them. There were riffs on navy Guernsey knits, with sailor collars and thigh-grazing leg-warmer boots in the Scottish cashmere. A brilliant array of jeweled cabochon brooches, cap pins in the shape of stars, sparkling crystal bootie bows, and pearl shoulder straps was made by Goossens. And Lesage sequins shimmered like oil-slicked water.
And then there was the stroke of genius that was the Maison Michel–made nautical tweed cap to consider at length. There was one on the head of every model, female and male, in the show. Look at it long enough – whether it had tulle net knotted over it or not – and the thing began triggering associations. Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter, perhaps? Beatle caps, definitely. In fact, they only got that name as a craze in the ’60s once John Lennon started wearing them after the Beatles had played gigs for months in clubs in the Reeperbahn red-light district in Hamburg. They’d picked up the idea of the caps from the sailors. “I might have been born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg,” Lennon once said.
The city – then still under reconstruction after the heavy bombing of World War II – is an unrecognizably different place today. Lagerfeld has early memories of being raised in a lovely house on the city’s lake and then being moved to the country. His father was a successful industrialist who, according to Hamburg native journalist Inga Griese of De Welt, supplied “the milk pods that went with every coffee in every café.” Postwar, however, Lagerfeld’s mother told her son he should leave Germany, which he duly did, for Paris. She used a figure of speech about the cosmopolitan energy of their hometown to encourage him to go. “Hamburg is the gateway to the world,” she said, “but you have to go through it.”
The reason that Lagerfeld finally decided the time was right to revisit Hamburg in December 2017 – and to bring customers and fashion people with him from across continents? That lies in the extraordinary new Herzog & de Meuron Elbephilharmonie building, which towers, with its glass front and sail-like roof, over the port of Hamburg. The project was begun by the former mayor, Ole von Beust, and is the net contributor to the city’s cultural pull: German audiences love classical music. So it was that the Chanel Métiers d’Art show for 2018 was shown in the sweepingly modern auditorium, to live orchestral music. “I must say, it’s stunning,” said Lagerfeld. It was a non-nostalgic venue, untethered to any Hamburg he used to know and very much to his forward-looking taste.
But even with all the stupendous architecture and the music going on, there was no distracting from the plain fact: Fashionwise, this homecoming collection ranks as one of Karl Lagerfeld’s very best.￼
This article first appeared on Vogue.com